There are some films that are so obscure you are lucky if you can find anyone who even knows what you are talking about. This is one of those films. The only time that I have ever seen it is on IFC, and though it does pop up there occasionally, it doesn’t really show up anywhere else. Nearly impossible to find online or on DVD, this movie could be a cult classic if it only had the viewership. “The American Astronaut” was released at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001, and Cory McAbee is not only the writer, director and star, but the head of the band that plays all music, because guess what? It’s also a musical.
Shot in high contrast black and white and complete with saloons and vast landscapes, this film is truly a “space western.” Astronaut Samuel Curtis (Cory McAbee) steps off onto a saloon on the asteroid Ceres and meets up with his friend, Blueberry Pirate. Blueberry and Sam hash out a plan to trade Sam’s cat for a “real live girl” which they can trade on Jupiter for “the boy who actually saw a woman’s breast.” Sam can then transport the Boy to Venus, where there are only beautiful women and one man, but the only man has just died. The women on Venus are willing to pay for the boy, and Sam takes this change to make some cash.
Along the way, he runs into an old friend and rival, Professor Hess, who is looking to kill him, but can’t until he forgives him (Hess will only kill people senselessly; as long as he has a reason to kill you, he won’t.) Sam and The Boy take refuge on another planet and meet Bodysuit, a boy who has been raised in a bodysuit to simulate Earth’s gravity. For supplies and shelter, they agree to take Bodysuit to Earth, but they find that he is unbearable and that Hess is still on their tails, so they are going to have to think fast to come out of the adventure alive.
One of the things that makes this movie worth watching is the complete irrelevance of the plot. You literally have no idea what will happen next, whether it is a musical number in the bathroom or an entire party or people vaporized to dust. It keeps you watching and, if not enjoying, then at least unfathomably curious about where the plot is actually going to take you.
There are many questions left unanswered and unexplained, such as Sam’s enigmatic alarm clock that asks, “What did your father tell you?” and will only stop if Sam says, “to kill the sunflower.” This seems like a setup to learn more about Sam’s past or to introduce a symbol of “killing a sunflower.” What makes it great is the music. The Billy Nayer Show, Cory McAbee’s band, wrote and played all of the songs in this musical adventure, and each song adds to overall ambiance of the film.
Some pieces are strictly score with heavy electric guitar and percussion mixed in with pieces that the actors perform themselves like any other musical. From “Hey Boy” performed in the bathroom stall of the saloon by two men about to enter into a dance competition to the closing number, “Girl With the Vagina Made of Glass,” sung on Venus, the score highlights the oddities in the film and works hand in hand with the irrelevant actions. Though the movie is hard to find, the soundtrack isn’t, and a quick Google search will get you a copy, which is well worth it.
The film tempts you to look for a deeper meaning; perhaps having to do with gender, as both males and females are very separate in space (boys on Jupiter, girls on Venus) and both are used as trading commodities based solely on their sex and their experience with the opposite sex. Perhaps the sunflower is a metaphor for something; maybe Professor Hess is a representation for Sam himself or maybe none of these things are connected and it is just a film made up of random yet connecting events. Though it’s hard to say if it is good or bad, this film makes my top 10 list because there will never be anything like it: it is a singular piece of cinema that shouldn’t be missed (even though it most often is). So keep your eyes on IFC or download it on Amazon for $10 (you can also rent it for $4) because this movie is worth watching.